The Effect of Poverty on Education

Poverty is a major hurdle to achieving a balanced education, but not always in the ways most people suspect. When we think of economic barriers to learning we often think about children living in developing countries, who have to travel hours from their village to a school far away or young people charged with being an earner for the family and who therefore cannot be spared in order to learn. Or we consider the cost of university education as a privilege often only the wealthy can afford. What many people are surprised to discover, is that there exist significant and impeding economic barriers to education for many American students, beginning right in the youngest grades of elementary school.

And that rather than representing a small percentage of learners, those students who are classed as economically deprived and therefore deserving of free school lunch programs represent the majority of students. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) published research gathered in 2013 that found that 51% of enrolled students were classified as coming from “low-income” households.

This designation affects students in a multitude of ways. Children coming from “low-income” families may not have the basic provisions necessary for good health such as:

  • proper nutrition,
  • a place to sleep
  • and adequate heating.

Imagine how difficult it would be to learn if you were hungry, tired and cold.

Children facing these conditions most likely attend schools that are underfunded have little resources and experience significant barriers to attracting and retaining quality teachers. Imagine again, how difficult it would be to learn if your school had little resources, books, technology and was understaffed.

Improving the quality of education and the access to opportunities for our students living in the most challenging of situations requires interventions at multiple levels. There must be provisions made in schools, in communities and at the state and national governmental level to help all students to achieve, regardless of their beginnings, backgrounds or unique circumstances.

But how can individual teachers tackle the effects of poverty in their classes?

Follow these tips to offer quality education regardless of economic circumstance:

  1. Ensure that you don't set homework assignments that ostracize some students- even asking students to color a page can create divisions in those families who may not be able to afford art materials.
  2. Learn about your individual students and their challenges and home situations- offer support and understanding and never generalize.
  3. Provide a basket of resources and supplies in your classroom, so that all students have exercise books, pencils/erasers/stationery and have access to the internet for research purposes.
  4. Be aware of any assumptions you might make about your students' life experiences, some may not have been able to enjoy family vacations, travel, attend galleries, museums or even the movie theater before.
  5. Be prepared to be flexible and offer alternative arrangements for assignments or due dates if students have legitimate reasons for being unable to meet your expectations, such as work obligations or childcare responsibilities for younger siblings.
  6. Arrange for all students to visit the public library and receive a library card- everyone should have access to free books.
  7. Work to raise your students' self-esteem and pride by having a culture of recognizing and praising hard work and effort above all else. Offer a variety of role models in popular culture and education that come from many different backgrounds.
  8. Encourage the implementation of social wellness programs such as breakfast clubs and homework clubs that supply proper nutrition and resources to allow all students to enter the classroom on a level footing.

Poverty is not the same as ignorance, it can affect anyone of us at any time and should never limit the opportunities a child has to learn, develop and grow.

Fiona Tapp, is a Freelance Writer, Educator, and Mom.  An Expert in the field of Pedagogy, a teacher of 13 years and Master’s Degree holder in Education. Take a look at her website or blog to connect.